Dish Network has a lot of problems on its plate

When a just-launched satellite designed to transmit HDTV channels fell short of its orbit on Friday, it looked like a metaphor for several things happening lately at Dish Network dish.

Shares in the No. 2 satellite company, formerly known as EchoStar, have plummeted 36% since early November, closing Wednesday at $28.05.

Investors wonder whether Dish Network can soar in a slowing economy as it grapples with delays in its rollout of HDTV channels and the loss of a patent-infringement case from TiVo tivo.

Dish markets itself as an economical alternative to its larger rival, DirecTV dtv. As a result, its 13.8 million subscribers tend to be less affluent, and more vulnerable to a recession.

"If you contrast EchoStar (Dish) and DirecTV, you have John Edwards' two Americas," says Kaufman Bros. analyst Todd Mitchell.

The anemic economy contributed to lower-than-expected subscription growth at the end of 2007, CEO Charlie Ergen told analysts in late February.

Another factor, though, was a delay in offering additional HDTV channels — especially from local TV stations. Dish and DirecTV already beat most cable operators in transmitting HD versions of national services such as History Channel and HGTV.

Some of the satellites that Dish needs to handle the additional HD load were delayed last year. With launches planned for 2008, the company vowed to offer at least 100 channels in 100 markets by year's end.

That's why many analysts are eager to hear more about the launch in Kazakhstan that went awry late last week. It left a satellite that Dish planned to lease in an orbit that's too low to be useful.

The satellite has enough fuel to boost itself into the proper orbit, but Dish said that might "substantially" reduce its useful life.

"You'd expect it to last 15 years," says Stifel Nicolaus' Kit Spring. "Maybe that will bring it down to 10 years."

Ergen said this week that two additional satellite launches this year mean the HD rollout "will proceed as planned." But he hopes to change TiVo's victory in a patent-infringement case that could force Dish to pay $94 million in damages.

A federal court found that Dish Network DVRs used patented technologies that enable users to watch one program while copying another. This week Dish asked an appeals court to rehear the case, alleging that an expert witness for TiVo had contradicted himself. TiVo said in a statement that this "was expected, and we remain confident we will prevail in this appeal."

Dish says it now has new software that handles the same functions. "I've had it on several boxes, and I never could tell the difference," says Satellite Business News Publisher Bob Scherman.

Yet Mitchell, for one, isn't sure the new software will suffice. Dish Network is "loath to put TiVo in their (DVR) boxes," he says.

"But they will have to come to some licensing agreement, and that will be expensive."